A few years ago, I was describing Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music” to a friend who just didn’t get it.
After I raved for at least a few minutes about the importance of the anthology — about how Bob Dylan voraciously studied it while he was trying to be a folky, how Jerry Garcia learned how to play Mississippi John Hurt’s two-handed fingerstyle guitar sound from it and how it shaped the direction of modern American music — my friend went on to talk about his favorite anthologies, and to tell me how many good anthologies were available, just like Harry Smith’s.
He wasn’t referring to the fact that Smith’s anthology was untouchably seminal in the world of American popular music and that there were others like it. He was referring to the hundreds if not thousands of anthologies that anthologize anything “anthologizable,” as long as it will sell, and that you can perhaps get with a subscription to Time Magazine, or from an infomercial on some late-night television network.
Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music” is different.
“All the songs were recorded in the late ’20s and early ’30s, really before the (Great) Depression really kicked in,” said Chicken Tractor Deluxe bassist Jim Baughman. “They’re all very ... before the music got homogenized by radio and records. It was still very distinctive regional styles, you know.”
The simplest way to describe Harry Smith’s anthology is to say that nothing was the same after it. It was part of the soundtrack of the Beat Generation and the Greenwich Village folk revival of the ’50s and ’60s was propelled by it. The many icons of American popular music who emerged in the ’60s and ’70s — with Dylan at the forefront — were in part shaped by it. And then there’s the ripple effect ... the endless, ceaseless ripples that ebb and flow and roll across the universe of creation and sound. That’s the simplest way to describe it.
To celebrate the anthology, the Elk Creek Café + Aleworks and Millheim-based Chicken Tractor Deluxe have teamed up to host the 10th annual Harry Smith Festival on Sunday. Hubby Jenkins of The Carolina Chocolate Drops is the headliner, and will also perform at Elk Creek on Saturday night.
“Kai Schafft (Chicken Tractor Deluxe banjo player) came up with the idea to honor the Harry Smith canon, and for Chicken Tractor Deluxe to host it with Elk Creek,” said Elk Creek Cafe owner Tim Bowser. “It is very unique, musically speaking, and this is the 10th year for the event, which is pretty cool for what was supposed to be a one-off.”
It’s certainly a great event for the Elk Creek, Chicken Tractor Deluxe and for the rest of the local bands involved, but Schafft didn’t come up with the idea just to have a party. As is often the case with exceptionally cool events happening in the Centre County scene, there’s a deeper significance.
“It benefits the Penns Valley HOPE fund, an incredibly worthy DIY group that helps members of our community facing catastrophic circumstances,” Bowser said. “It is an awesome community event, and to benefit a local charity, it was a clear no-brainer for us.”
American music, American history, Elk Creek Café, Hubby Jenkins, local music, a great local charity — chalk this up as a win for Centre County.
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Kevin Briggs is a musician, writer and teacher who performs at venues throughout central Pennsylvania. Contact him at KevinTBriggs@gmail. com.
IF YOU GO
- What: Harry Smith Festival
- When: 2-6 p.m. Sunday
- Where: Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks, 100 W. Main St., Millheim
- Info: www.elkcreekcafe .com